Set off for the bus station with two pals – a usefully fluent Spaniard and a laid-back Yank – on the transmillenio Metro system. Instead of subterranean trains, the capital’s main transport network consists of a system of buses with segregated lanes that, like a train system, controls joyriders by limiting the points of entry and exit to stations. I presume this was chosen over a conventional metro because it is much cheaper and quicker to install. It functions very well.
In Zipaquira, we were taken in hand by Lucy, a helpful local lady who wanted only our email addresses in exchange. She took us first to a local art exhibition where they kindly agreed to stash my bag. It had been put together by a foundation of artists in the region and was housed in a beautiful, airy, recently renovated station building. Some great pieces of work, but I especially liked the large tissue paper sculptures by a lady called Johanna, designed to represent the complexity and fragility of the heart.
Onwards to the Salt Cathedral, so called because it has been created in a network of tunnels where they used to mine salt, picking up giant avocadoes, plums, mamacitas on the way and sampling delicious meat fresh off a fire-pit asado (barbeque). The Salt Cathedral is a continuing work in progress and visitors can see where enormous investment is being made to carve more intricate religious iconography into the furthest walls. Even as it stands, it is huge and though not officially a cathedral has a sizeable congregation who show up each week. Visitors are lead through a network of descending caverns, leading off one main tunnel, with crosses carved to represent the progressive story of the Bible. Because it’s underground, they have really been able to go to town with colourful lighting. Check it out. My pictures don’t do it justice. The camera was giving up on this world. Our trio quickly abandoned the guided tour because frankly Héctor was more entertaining, clambering up onto alters, prayer spots and crosses for the ultimate pics. Disrespectful for your average tourist but I reckoned he could talk his way out of any trouble.
If you hang around at the very end, beyond the main hall, where the new carving is going on you may be lucky enough to be invited to see the light show. Didn’t know quite what to expect, but it’s a giant hall with a ceiling about 20m high (don’t take that as read – I am a girl), covered with a net of lights. The dim the ambient lighting and then play a huge light show across this giant net, set to music. It’s incredible. If I could choose a venue for my 30th birthday rave, this would be it. They do have a convention centre there, so never say never.
Headed next for a bus station slightly out of town in a taxi, told faithfully by the local toothless Chiclets seller that it was the best way onwards to San Gil. Actually, everyone had told me that it was easier to go from Bogota but it seemed stupid to me to spend over an hour driving back in the wrong direction to pick up a bus that was likely to pass right through. Anyway, dropping me off at 4pm, the taxi driver faithfully told me that there was a San Gil-bound bus coming at 8pm that I could hop on. Settled down for a wait.
‘¿Donde va usted?’ asked a friendly lady. Explaining, she shook her head and conferred with her traveling companions. ‘No no. That will take too long and you will arrive very late at night. It isn’t safe.’ I should probably explain here that for the mostpart, Colombia is safe but the locals get very worried about foreigners wandering casually into the wrong area – which can be dangerous in terms of armed muggings etc. Same as any city though. You wouldn’t go wandering into Bristol’s Saint Pauls district or London’s Peckham late at night on your own without knowing what you’re doing. Likewise with Colombian cities. I have scarcely felt threatened or afraid in my Colombian travels. Buses, for example, as well organised and bags are packed diligently into the storage space, labelled and claimed by showing your counter-receipt. Gone are the days when South America (in some parts) was all about roping your bag to the roof and hoping that noone had a rifle/swiped it en route.
The three ladies scooped me up on what they promised would be a speedier, if indirect passage. I didn’t realize until too late that this involved an hour standing on the step of a speeding minibus on one foot as it careered around roadworks. It was as we whistled past a sister bus ploughed on its side into the verge that I began to silently pray for salvation, promising never again to get a loco bus.
The protracted journey gave me plenty enough time to talk to Gloria, her mother and her sister. Gloria has been studying in the States for over 10 years and she and her family were on the way to her aunt’s surprise 40th birthday party at a little village. ‘Actually, would you like to come?’ they asked, warning me that the conditions were pretty basic.
Found myself three buses and a car ride later at a little finca in the heart of the Colombian countryside with the extended family warming up the fiesta and a cluster of uncles passing around tots of whiskey. Family members steadily streamed in, dressed in their finery as an uncle took to the decks (complete with full PA system), a cousin took the mic to sing traditional tunes and the next generation niños ran around underfoot. A hush was ushered in as aunty arrived, tricked into her surprise party under pretence of going to someone else’s birthday. She was beautifully overwhelmed, not least by the strange gringa (which I’ve sadly learnt can only be applied to North Americans. I am a mere extranjera.) in the corner.
Some time later, steaming plates of dinner were passed around, piled with rabbit, plantain, rice, potatoes and veggies. Granny had been toiling over an open fire out the back conjuring a full cauldron of delicious food from what looked to me like thin air. She didn’t stop cooking all night, bringing out marshmallows some time after midnight and popping the breakfast stew on by about 4am. ‘Does she ever sleep?’ I asked the next day. ‘No.’
The music, dancing and moderate beering (with frequent tots of whiskey) took off, interrupted only to get a large knob-shaped piñata out for the birthday girl. Classic. Delight was taken in getting me to salsa, a term loosely used to describe my dance prowess, and getting me to join in the piggy in the middle dances. Baila Gringa! they would chorus with delight! Carranguera is the regional music with a distinctive dance step. They tried to teach me but to an inglesa, it’s all pretty much the same. Dancing continued until dawn with babies and youngsters steadily peeling off to crash mattress scattered around the house. My little gang had bagged proper beds up the road in aunty’s house and ambled back at about 6am, admiring the cloud-cloaked valley below as we went.
Perfect Colombian introduction? I think so. Better than San Gil? I reckon.
The following day I was invited to voyage with Tio Tarcisco and his wife, Carmen, to Villa de Leyva, in their opinion the most beautiful town in Colombia. Tis true. It is a gem of a Spanish colonial town and is said to boast the largest plaza in the whole of South America. Whatever, I ain’t measuring them. I slumbered in the back for the hour or so’s drive, waking only for a treat of longaniza and fried potatoes in Sutamarchán, a pueblo famous for the chorizo-like sausage, on the way. Carmen’s sister Ines has a modern house on the countryside just outside the city limit. She spent 30 years working in the States and brought her family up there. Ines misses the children and grandchildren who still live there but her husband’s heart lies in Colombia so they took their savings to build a large villa in the countryside and return for extended visits to the US a couple of times a year. Skype is a marvelous thing. Half the villa is their home and the other is a self-contained, 3-bedroom unit, normally rented out to families and groups though she kindly let me rent just a room.
I intended to just stop a night, but wound up spending two, chatting with Ines, Carmen and Tarcisco about their families and life stories, and kicking off my Spanish immersion in the process. Somehow managed to understand their story about a young Colombian-American who they helped to integrate into Spanish-speaking life on his return to Bogota a few years ago, a story that arose as I returned a blank face to certain words or sentences. The details are clearly beyond me, but he had been born to Colombian parents and unofficially adopted by an American couple in his youth. Unfortunately he had no papers and when the authorities found out, they deported him. He spoke nothing but English and had a tough landing in Bogota, to say the least. Carmen and Tarcisco spent weeks going through the very basics with him and were amazed at how fast he picked it up (which is where the story stemmed from). Alas, there is not a happy ending. Plagued with problems even before he arrived in Bogota, he fell in with a bad crowd and met a drug-related, premature end.
Depressing stories aside, there’s plenty to see in the area. Started off on a day of sight-seeing with the Terracotta House (Casa de Barro), a 12 year project to date that remains unfinished. It looks like a Flintstone house and is filled with irregular-shaped rooms, some high-ceilinged, some nooks or crannies, mosaics, bizarre gargoyles and terraces. Apparently it’s the work of a Colombian architect and is rumoured to be destined for a hotel when finished. We shall see.
From here to the Parque Arqueológico to see the observatory of the ancient Muisca tribe. It looks a bit like a mini-hippodrome but apparently functioned a little like Stonehenge. Co-located is a field of phallic stones, tributes to the gods to pray for fertility. Ahem. All shapes and sizes. Not all that dissimilar to Capadoccia.
The valley is famous in Colombia for its fossils, in particular the Fossil of Monquirá, a ‘Colombian Pliosaurus from the Cretaceous Period’. It’s remarkable because it’s 7m long and almost entirely intact. It’s head alone is 2.36m long and looks sort of croc-shaped. The body I suppose looks like a skinny turtle with four large fins for terrorising the waters at speed. It and the other fossils on display are pretty impressive, even if my favourite fossils are still back in Mongolia. Locals like to use the littler ones in their interior decoration too. Even the monks up at the monastery covered a couple of walls with them.
Finished up with a fruit picnic at the Monasterio Santo Eccehomo. In my opinion, Colombian fruit is the best in the world. All manner of weird and wonderful shapes, colours and flavours have been placed before me and I hungrily devour all. Set around a well in the middle of a broad courtyard and awash with flowers, the monastery was once voted one of the top 30 buildings to visit in Colombia. Quite a claim to fame. Mostly what you see today is reconstruction though; the monastery suffered much damage over the years.
All good things must come to an end so I bid my new Colombian family farewell when they dropped me up the road in Tunja and set off – three days later than planned – for San Gil. Upon reaching San Gil, knowing full well that the reason for being there is mostly adventure sports, I realized that I wasn’t really in the mood for adventure sports and wanted some sun. So I picked up a pot of the deep-fried local delicacy – hormigas culones or ‘big assed ants’ -and booked myself onto a bus for the coast.